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In Defense of ‘Woke’

The right has appropriated and weaponized the term. Progressives shouldn’t let them. Banning the teaching of our true history casts a chilling effect on the debates we must have. We need more Americans to be woke.

Black students at the University of Maryland in the 1970s.
African American students demonstrate against the Vietnam War on the steps of the University of Maryland’s Main Administration Building in the early 1970s. For decades, the term “woke” has been part of the Black vernacular. (University of Maryland Archives)
Former President Donald Trump’s indictment and concerns over what this may mean for the anticipated run for president of Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has provided an opportunity for us to reflect on the real meaning of “woke” — a term DeSantis has appropriated and excoriated for political advantage. Instead of running from wokism, like what was done when Republicans redefined and weaponized the slogan “defund the police,” progressive public officials and political candidates should lean into its original meaning and challenge Americans to choose what type of country they want for their future.

For decades, the term “woke” has been part of the Black vernacular. It means to be aware and conscious. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, I admired woke individuals in my neighborhood, whether they were athletes, musicians or college-bound students. If they were woke, it meant they were cool, hip, smart and, most importantly, worthy of emulation.

I can remember as a teenager working in the student commons at the University of Missouri in Columbia and observing Black students entering and leaving the cafeteria. They often sat together, wore cool Ivy League clothes, and later in the 1960s sported huge Afros and brightly patterned Afro-centric apparel. As an impressionable young man, these students to me were cool and woke. If for no other reason, they were woke because they were pursuing degrees at a flagship university.

In 1967, when they grew their Afros even larger, slipped into black leather jackets and demanded “Black power,” I knew for sure that woke was a good thing. If the term could be associated with freedom and justice for oppressed people in my community, I wanted the entire state of Missouri to be woke. Sadly, today it is one of states considering a slew of legislation that would make it harder to teach true American history. That is certainly contrary to being woke.

When it was time for me to graduate from high school and go off to college, I left with a determination to stay woke, to keep my conscience clear and to remain aware of my responsibilities to my community and society at large. Awareness, caring and a commitment to making society better are what being woke meant to me then; they are what it means to me today.

After the 2016 national elections, white conservatives and right-wing pundits redefined “woke,” inverted its meaning and weaponized it against liberal and progressive politicians. Growing up using the term, I can say without fear of honest contradiction that it never meant teaching young people that America was systematically racist (although there are many historians and political scientists who believe that it is). It never implied that gender studies have as their goal to make the entire nation “queer.” And I know of no woke teachers or politicians who believe that white youth today are responsible for the sins of their slave-owning great-great grandparents, regardless of their inheritances that can be traced to those ancestors.

Intellectually, we can and should debate all these issues, but what we cannot do is to conflate scholarly inquiry by educators with pushing an agenda or ideology on students and society at large. We cannot ban discussions of capitalism’s connection with slavery like many conservative public officials insist that we do by passing draconian laws. These laws cast a chilling effect on the very debates we must have, and they often lead to censorship.

We all know that the United States is far from being perfect and that many of its systems and institutions are in need of reform, if not radical restructuring. We gain nothing by pretending that this is not the case. Those on the bottom who experience injustice and discrimination constantly are in the best position to identify those needed changes. This includes a diverse cross-section of Black, brown, Democratic, Republican and politically independent Americans as well as white working-class conservatives.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to voters gathered at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines on March 10, 2023. Florida, DeSantis has said, “is where woke goes to die.” (Scott Olson/Getty Images/TNS)
There is something that can be done. First, progressives must stop allowing right-wing conservatives to appropriate and redefine terms like wokeness. In today’s social media-dominated society, the struggle to define terms and control the narrative is part of what defines truth for many Americans. It might do us some good to remember what the late Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, often exhorted: “A lie that goes unchallenged stands as the truth.”

In addition to challenging lies and being more aggressive about defining themselves, liberal and progressive public officials must call out conservatives like DeSantis, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and others who have brazenly used racial subterfuge and deliberate misinformation to play to anxieties and fears among white constituents. Those tactics are racist, and whoever uses them should be held accountable.

Finally, African American studies and gender studies teachers should join forces and fight against what the extreme right wing is attempting to accomplish in the U.S. with their attacks and banning of books: to return the country to times when things considered good and normal were calibrated for white patriarchal values and standards only. Our nation is diverse, and we are not going back to the days when white males called all the shots.

Instead of killing wokeness and proclaiming our states as places where “woke comes to die,” we should ensure that more Americans become aware, awake and alive. If everyone is asleep, how are we going to make America great again — or perhaps great for the first time?

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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